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Brain Health: Changing the State of Mental Health Education and Stigma

October 12, 2021

The effects of suicide can ripple through families and communities, leaving loved ones with unexplainable grief and guilt.

That became a reality for Yale College undergrad Bryce Bjork and his family when his younger brother, Chase, took his own life at the age of 18 in January of 2020.

With post-graduation plans of working on an app to connect students to jobs, Bjork and classmate Ting Gao paused their start-up efforts to research and understand what could be done about mental health issues.

“After Chase died, we all wanted to make meaning out of such an immense loss. We knew that so many kids like Chase were quietly struggling without the right resources and support. We learned that 76% of lifetime mental illness begins in adolescence, and over half of youth with a diagnosable condition never seek treatment. Early intervention makes a big difference in outcomes, so it's imperative that we better support young adults in these formative years,” said Bjork.

Gao, whose own family has struggled with mental illness, felt compelled to get involved.

“As a child of immigrant parents who rarely spoke about feelings, I never learned about stress, depression, anxiety, or how to deal with emotions. I watched my older brother struggle with addiction, depression, and bipolar disorder, and I never knew how to support him or even myself. I know that many other kids have had the same experience, and so I've always wanted to address the lack of mental health awareness and education,” said Gao.

Bryce Bjork (Branford College ‘20) and Ting Gao (Pauli Murray ‘20) originally met in a Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation, and Design (CEID) product-building class. They quickly became friends after working on several class projects together.

Following the sudden death of his brother, Bjork teamed up with Gao on a new idea to help raise awareness, educate and reduce stigma around mental illness and suicide. The two Yale alum began developing the Brain Health Bootcamp (BHB), an online educational program for high school students and their families to learn about mental health and how to get help.

They decided to reach out to Lynn E. Fiellin, MD, professor of medicine (general medicine). Fiellin is the founding director of the play2PREVENT Lab, which builds on evidence-informed educational and behavior change interventions to impact the well-being of youth. Fiellin also teaches several classes, one of which is a grant writing course in the Investigative Medicine Program, and she also serves as a mentor in a biomedical engineering course.

Bjork and Gao were students in a biomedical engineering course, where they met Fiellin, and brought their ideas about the bootcamp to her. Fiellin then joined as a scientific advisor.

“I was honored when they asked me to join their team as a scientific advisor,” said Fiellin. “Here are two people who had taken something heart-breaking and were growing something positive and powerful out of it. Everyone has their struggles and their own difficult life experiences, and it’s what you do about them that really counts.”

In September, the Brain Health Bootcamp launched online. The bootcamp uses short videos, infographics, and quizzes to teach the basics of mental health in roughly 30 minutes. The goals are to help students and families recognize mental illness as brain health conditions that are real and can be treated and managed; to learn about mental health and reduce stigma; and to know how to talk about their mental health, how to get help for themselves, and help others who are struggling.

“The Brain Health Bootcamp is catalyzing an important movement in mental health – it’s replacing the term ‘mental health’ with ‘brain health’ in order to emphasize how physical and treatable these conditions are and to destigmatize mental health,” said Bjork. “We want to change the way people think and talk about mental health by providing young people with engaging, evidence-informed content about mental/brain health along with resources to improve their overall wellbeing and sense of belonging.”

“The goal of the bootcamp is to provide accurate information to help people, especially young people, to understand that mental illness is like any other medical condition. And to focus on mental illness being related to potential changes in one’s brain, not from a weakness of character or just having bad thoughts. We hope this will help to destigmatize issues around mental health so that more people can talk about it comfortably and seek help when needed,” said Fiellin.

The bootcamp is available to all for free and funded by the Chase Bjork Foundation, a nonprofit that was founded by members of the Concord, MA community who were inspired by the legacy of kindness that Chase left behind. The bootcamp is available now online at brainhealthbootcamp.org and is set to launch in two Massachusetts schools in late October 2021.

Submitted by Amy Anderson on October 11, 2021